Against All Odds: Sarin Gas Led Nora Abbas to Become a Naturopathic Physician

In 2011, I was evacuated from the small island of Bahrain in
the Persian Gulf to the US during my senior year of high school at The Bahrain
School, an International Baccalaureate (IB) high school. The school was
centrally located in the capital, Manama. The Arab Spring uprising was
intensifying and it was no longer safe for US citizens, so the US government
issued an evacuation for all US dependents (those who were not active duty
military). I was just a few months shy of my high school graduation when I  was sent home to Florida alone at the age of
17 to finish my remaining classes online.

View of Manama, Bahrain from Amwaj Island (2018)

My mother was the principal of the K-12 school owned and
operated by the United States Department of Defense (DOD). Though I was sent
home to the US, she was ordered to stay and keep everything running at the
school despite that no students or teachers were present or even allowed on the

The civil war, also known as the Arab Spring Uprising, was largely kept off the media, especially in foreign and US news, so I had no understanding of how severe the situation in Bahrain had become until I received a phone call two months after it began that I will never forget. Still today I relive every emotion that ran through me when I remember how the school counselor (still in the country at the time) called to tell me: “Your mother had a heart attack. She’s in ICU at the Bahrain Hospital.”

I don’t know what scared me more, the fact that she had a
heart attack or the fact that she was alone in a foreign hospital with limited
help. I felt absolutely useless. I was at least a 26-hour plane ride away and
didn’t think I’d ever see my mom again.

What wasn’t mentioned on that phone call was that she had been attacked and gassed with uncut sarin gas canisters that led to a stress-induced cardiomyopathy. It was months before my mother was able to go back to the US for proper treatment, and eventually, after high school graduation, I lived with my mother to take care of her while I attended college. It was an experience that would lead me into medicine as a profession.

The Journey Towards Healing Begins

Initially, I never intended to become a doctor. I was
pursuing molecular biology and had an interest in research and marine life. I
was always fascinated with genetics (on multiple levels), especially
epigenetics, which are changes in one’s gene expression (not the genetic code
itself), as a result of environmental and dietary intervention.

A year into my molecular biology degree, I decided to add on
a second degree in pre-medical biology in hopes of learning more about the
human body so I could help my mother and better understand her condition.

The first year of college was the hardest. Not because of
the course load, but because daily I’d watch my mom suffer in pain due to the
skin lesions from the chemical gas burns. She coughed up blood and battled
constant asthma and respiratory attacks.

She was prescribed 23 pharmaceutical agents for her
undiagnosed condition. She was given something for each symptom or pathology,
such as pain, difficulty breathing, high blood pressure, PTSD, etc.
Occasionally, her medications would exacerbate her symptoms and cause further
issues. For instance, the prescribed albuterol led to panic attacks and night
terrors, which led to yet more medications. For her difficulty breathing, she
was prescribed a nebulizer with lidocaine (eventually modified to be saline and
lidocaine), but even this seldomly provided adequate relief. If it did not put
her to sleep for hours, she would need to repeat the treatment every 3-5 hours
or her cough would worsen.

My mother was desperate to get relief from her condition and
was willing to try any other treatment options. 
It reached a point where I couldn’t watch it anymore so when I wasn’t
studying or taking care of her, I was reading all I could to try to help.

As fate would have it, not long after I started looking into
alternative treatments for a poorly-understood case, I attended a meeting at
school for those interested in undergraduate research. All of the attendees
gave a brief intro into their areas of focus, all of which were marine-related
with the exception of one woman, who  was
part-time faculty and worked on her own research outside of school as well. She
was the only one not in marine research, rather, medical research and more
conveniently, cardiac gap-junction cells. As soon as she finished her lecture,
I immediately asked: “Is this related to cases like Takotsubo Syndrome? This is
a form of stress-induced cardiomyopathy and what my mother experienced. She
responded: “No one else I’ve ever presented to is familiar with Takotsubo
Syndrome. Come see me after.”

This began my transition into medicine.

Presenting my Own Research on Takotsubo Syndrome

For the remainder of my college education, I focused my undergraduate research on Takotsubo Syndrome and the long-term effects of catecholamines on gap-junction cells (specifically, connexin 43). This research later won “Best in Show” for undergraduate research at the Florida Institute of Technology (2014).

Outside of school, I focused my self-guided research on natural
ways to help my mother’s condition as a whole. This ultimately led to changing both of our diets
entirely, incorporating herbs and nutrients into our daily routines, and
addressing the mental component of her severe PTSD through mindfulness
practices and various cognitive behavioral therapies.

Her health made a complete 180-degree turn, as did my own. 
A woman with a complex, undiagnosed condition and who was given a very
poor prognosis due to lung lesions and gas exposure, now had a second chance.

My Journey Toward Naturopathic Medicine

I had no idea what I had gotten
into at the time and nor did she. This was in part because we took  a second look at family recipes we had been
using for generations and found healthier alternative ingredients and learned
how to prepare vegetables and grains we had never even heard of before. We
wanted to both preserve family traditions and also make meals that appealed to
us both so that this would be a lasting lifestyle change and not just a quick

My mother and I immediately after completing my interview at NUNM (2017)

Somewhere along the road (about a
year and a half after graduating from college) my mother was on the phone with
one of her best friends, the woman who made the call in Bahrain to have her
rushed to the hospital immediately after her heart attack. She was a commanding
officer of the US medical facilities on the naval base in Bahrain at the time
and was often required to work closely with my mother regarding issues that
would affect the school and US dependents. In doing so, they became good
friends, especially after my mother’s attack.

My mother was giving her an update on all of her progress
when her friend asked, “Why isn’t Nora pursuing naturopathic medicine?”

My mother and I were stunned.
Neither of us knew it existed or had even heard of it (being from an unlicensed
state and living overseas), but with a little bit of research it became clear
it was the solution I had been looking for. I finally felt like I had a
direction in life!

I applied to naturopathic medical
school and was admitted into my top choice program, but when it came time to
enroll for classes, it was my health that now took a turn and required my full
attention. I had to defer.  After
traveling abroad, I developed severe GI symptoms that put me in and out of the
hospital. I was down to 88lbs and given various diagnoses from multiple
conventional medical doctors and GI specialists without any improvement or
relief. Over the course of these visits I most notably received a colonoscopy,
an IBS diagnosis with characterization of diarrhea (though never experienced
diarrhea), and a diagnosis of dysentery (without lab work or first evaluating
for presence of parasites or other infections).

My health was becoming worse and no one was addressing
the underlying issue apart from hydration and over-the-counter supplements. And
so, I finally decided to fly to Portland, Oregon to be evaluated by an ND who,
within a matter of minutes into the visit, guided me to the answers we’d long
been searching for, and helped get me on the path to healing my gut and
pinpointing the causes of my illness.

A year and a half later I was
able to revisit my dream of becoming a doctor, and I am now entering my third
year of naturopathic medical school at National University of Natural Medicine
(NUNM) and truly loving every minute of it. What’s even better, my best friend,
my mother, visits every other month to explore the beautiful Pacific Northwest
with me. We are finally both in great health.

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